Why you should care
Because Germans can’t escape their Nazi past, even when it comes to birth.
On the second day of spring 1931, two years before the Nazis seized power and burned “unsuitable” books, Nanna Conti attended the Day of the Book hosted by the Berlin Women’s Association. Two of the authors who spoke that day impressed Conti and were later deemed worthy enough by the government to escape the Nazis’ pyres. One was Ina Seidel, whose story of a doctor’s commitment to his work, even after the death of his wife, spoke directly to Conti. Its theme about offering comfort and dutifully acting to help those in need moved her deeply. “All the strings in the heart of a midwife will resonate in the reading of this piece,” she wrote.
Improving midwifery and working for the sake of babies and mothers was Conti’s mantra. For nearly 30 years, she had been practicing as a Berlin midwife, a profession she felt deserved more recognition. Midwives delivered more than 80 percent of German babies at the beginning of the 20th century, yet there was no national midwifery organization, no standardized education and no minimum wage or guaranteed pension, despite efforts by a number of midwife associations across the country.
Midwives were a way to get into the homes and make sure they were proper Aryan homes.
Lynne Fallwell, author
In 1930, Conti had joined the Nazi Party. Lynne Fallwell, assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University and author of Modern German Midwifery, 1885–1960, acknowledges that Conti joined the party early and had previously been associated with nationalistic parties. This, Fallwell says, reflected that Conti’s move to Nazism was fueled by “ideological commitment, rather than the opportunism that drove so many others.”
Over the next decade, Conti would become known as the woman who changed midwifery forever in Germany. She brought together the long-sought changes midwives had been fighting for. The Nazis, as it turned out, were also fans of hers, prompted no doubt by their desire to increase birth rates of ethnic Germans and improve national health. “Midwives were a way to get into the homes and make sure they were proper Aryan homes,” Fallwell says. The midwives could go into homes and make an assessment on behalf of the party. Were there miscarriages or abortions? Did a newborn have a birth defect? For the social control of the country, midwives were essential.
When the Nazis seized power in 1933, midwives officially became part of the national health system, and Conti was appointed head of the new, consolidated midwives association. She became known as the Reichshebammenführerin, standardizing midwifery education and establishing milk depots for mothers to donate extra breast milk. She also edited the association’s journal and advocated Nazi ideals. Midwives, in turn, were expected to join the professional organization and adhere to party ideology.
But Nazism also favored midwives and home births as a cost-saving measure. The less that had to be spent on maternity costs, after all, the more could be spent on the war. “They were notorious penny-pinchers,” says Patty Stokes, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Ohio University. Conti’s son Leonardo was a doctor in the SS, and became the government’s Reich health leader. He gave a speech endorsing home birth as the safest form of delivery, noting how it was cheaper to deliver at home.
In 1938, Nazi officials created the first piece of national policy for midwives, declaring that they should be present at every birth, even if a doctor was in attendance. There is no direct evidence that Conti wrote the law — the midwife organization’s archives were lost during the war — but Fallwell says that the ideas Conti had been advocating in the midwifery journal became reality with the law. This, combined with her work, solidified midwives as professionals and a vital part of birth, a practice that continues to this day.
Jews were prevented from entering midwifery school or practice — an anti-Semitic holdover that stuck in writing, if not in practice, until 1985. The law also directly supported the Nazis’ child euthanasia program — the systematic identification and murder of children with birth defects, ranging from a cleft palate to Down syndrome. Midwives were paid extra to identify these babies, although not all midwives did.
Conti was never charged with war crimes, and her legacy as the savior of Germany midwifery lives on. Had the Nazis not created a national policy, the professionalization of doctors and the move to the hospital would most likely have eliminated the midwifery system, much like it did in the United States during the same period. Today, most German babies are still delivered by midwife, but owing to low wages and high liability insurance, midwives’ professional status remains under threat.